There were lots of things that frustrated me about being a little girl: not being allowed to wear trousers at school, being prevented from joining the cubs, the year my brothers all got penknives under the Christmas tree from my grandparents while I opened a ceramic Jeremy Fisher. But one of the biggest annoyances of all was that the fastest person in the world was never going to be a woman. That the furthest jump, the highest leap, the biggest lift, the longest throw, were always going to be performed by men.
People told me women’s sport was rubbish. Perhaps it was?
At 11 I went to a girls’ grammar school where sport was valued, even if we were forced to do our physical jerks in pleated games skirts and/or grey knickers. Pissing about in PE lessons was definitely not acceptable. We were lucky enough to have a school field and a handful of concrete tennis and netball courts – riches beyond the dreams of most city comprehensives. There was a younger girl with incredibly long legs who threw the discus miles and always seemed to be going up in assembly to get prizes for some kind of sporting excellence. Reader, I googled her. She went on to row in three Olympic Games, winning a bronze medal at Athens, and this month Sarah Winckless will become the first woman ever to umpire the men’s boat race.
In 1992 the Dutch tennis player Richard Krajicek slam-dunked that 80% of female tennis players were “fat, lazy pigs”. It caused some outrage. Apart from its genuine offensiveness, the remark made no sense. Tennis was one sport in which women were both paid (though not equally), watched and visible — Martina Navratilova, Steffi Graf and Gabriela Sabatini were as famous in their time as their male counterparts Boris Becker and Stefan Edberg. There was one big difference: Graf and Sabatini, in particular, had to put up with the constant leer of the camera, the fantasy Rose Red and Snow White of the court, while Wimbledon back pages were dominated by lascivious knicker shots. The dominance of the magnificent but gloriously shorts‑wearing Martina Navratilova must have been a crushing disappointment for picture editors everywhere.
The penny dropped slowly but it was revelatory. It turned out that women’s sport was not terrible. Women’s sport was barely funded. In fact female sports stars mostly worked and did sport in their spare time, and sometimes paid for the privilege. You couldn’t read about women’s sport because it was barely written about. You couldn’t watch women’s sport – except at Wimbledon, figure skating and the Olympics – because television companies didn’t cover it.
Women were still considered somewhat fragile and certainly decorative. There wasn’t even a women’s marathon at the Olympics until I was 11, the female pole vault and hammer throw joined the party well after the main course had been swallowed and the plates returned, in 2000. And let’s not forget the FA’s spiteful 50-year ban on women’s football. Few women were in positions of power in the sporting world, in fact there was barely a female commentator – though a grateful hat-tip here to the indefatigable Sue Barker.
And then there was the brain melt that is male puberty and the overwhelming biological advantages that it brings – bigger heart, stronger arms, bigger shoulders, longer limbs, greater muscle mass – and the eventual beautiful, powerful, realisation that pushing the female body to its limits was just as wonderful as the male body doing the same.
Nevertheless, even as a young adult I’d internalised the narrative of female sport. When I first started working as a writer, I was often asked to cover women’s cricket. Sometimes I pushed back. Why? Because I was the only woman on the team and I didn’t want to be typecast. I didn’t always want to do what felt like something of a booby prize. I feel pretty ashamed about that now and am thrilled there are full-time jobs out there for both men and women covering female sports that grow insatiably, year on year. A huge 1.12 billion people watched the women’s football World Cup last year, 180 million tuned in for the Cricket World Cup in England in 2018, while Mattel is being petitioned to make its one-off Dina Asher‑Smith Barbie into something that hits the shelves in time for the Olympics.
Just this past week British Cycling announced it had got a million more women on bikes since 2013. Lord’s has curated a new summer exhibition, celebrating the evolution of women’s cricket. Lewes FC press on two years after they started paying their male and female players the same wages. This Girl Can continues its glorious celebration of girls and women exercising whatever their size and ability. Netball has grown hugely in popularity in the wake of England’s Commonwealth gold in 2018. And the Australia fast bowler Mitchell Starc has flown home from his team’s tour of South Africa to watch his wife, Alyssa Healy, in the Women’s T20 World Cup final in Melbourne on Sunday morning.
There are still “buts”, too many “buts”. When the England and Wales Cricket Board announced that women and men were going to have an equal share of the prize money in the Hundred, there was much disenchantment on social media, despite the fact that the women will earn an average of 12% of the men’s salaries. Women’s sport is still hugely under-represented in the media. And there are still plenty of societal and financial pressures that stop women and girls, particularly teenage girls and women from poorer backgrounds, from getting active.
But hey, it’s International Women’s Day. The curve is upward, female sporting progress huge, and if you still consider women’s sport unwatchable, then I wish you enlightenment. And daughters to guide your way.